Emergency alert used in suspected NY bomber arrest spotlights tech comms

Wireless Emergency System notifications assist federal authorities in communicating with the general public. What role do they play in national security threats? Here’s the scoop.

Smart phone owners in the New York City area received an emergency blast to their phones at 8 a.m. on Monday.

The message read:

WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen.

Many residents saw the text-like blast as an example of how authorities plan to react in the event of an active terrorist on the loose in a well-populated area.

Rahami—who has since been detained in New Jersey—was wanted at the time the message was sent in connection with Saturday’s bombings in New York and New Jersey.

The New York Times reports:

The “wanted” message sent Monday appeared to be the first widespread attempt to transform the citizens of a major American city into a vigilant and nearly omnipresent eye for the authorities. It added new meaning to the notion of “see something, say something,” even as it raised some concern that innocent people could be mistakenly targeted.

Not everyone thought it was a good idea.

The Federal Communications Commission reserves the Wireless Emergency Alerts system for messages from the president, Amber Alerts and imminent safety threats. They’re limited to 90 characters, and they do not contain links or photos (hence the “See media for pic”).

Cellphone users can opt to block all but the presidential alerts. To date, the president has not sent an alert using the system.

“This alert serves none of these,” New York Magazine writer Brian Feldman writes.

He also says the message “deputizes the five boroughs and encourages people to treat anyone who looks like he might be named ‘Ahmad Khan Rahami’ with suspicion.”

RELATED: Learn digital signage best practices from the pros: Grab attention with short, powerful messages.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC is considering adding links and photos to these messages.

Despite criticism, New York officials believe the alert assisted in catching the suspect.

“We think it created a lot of focus and urgency,” New York mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters. “From what we know right now, it definitely contributed to the successful apprehension of this suspect. This is a tool we will use again in the future.”

From The New York Times:

Eric F. Phillips, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said the decision to send the alert on Monday required a high degree of evidence that Mr. Rahami was connected to the bombing. It took about 15 minutes for officials to agree on the language for an alert, and give approval for the message that was sent across the city at 7:57 a.m.

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